There has always been something disturbingly elitist about the idea of HOT lanes, also known as high-occupancy toll lanes, also known as Lexus lanes.
The notion that some Americans would be able to drive on uncrowded lanes reserved for those who could pay for the privilege while drivers in the next lane are condemned to bumper-to-bumper traffic — it just doesn’t sit right. It brings to mind that line from “Animal Farm,” about all animals being equal, but some are more equal than others.
The idea is particularly galling if taxpayers who are stuck in traffic are forced to pay for construction of the HOT lanes that they can’t afford to use. And let’s make that clear — the whole idea is to make HOT lanes so expensive that most people won’t be able to use them regularly.
That just doesn’t seem right.
Having said that, however, the concept of HOT lanes does have legitimate, practical applications. For example, new lanes that are built specifically as HOT lanes and financed through tolls collected on those lanes don’t raise the same fairness concerns. In that case, the infrastructure is being paid for by the people using it, and that’s fine.
Here in Georgia, the state Department of Transportation is proposing a second approach. It wants to take existing HOV lanes along a stretch of I-85 — one lane in each direction — and convert them to tolled HOT lanes. Car pools could still use the lanes for free, but single drivers wanting to avoid traffic would also be able to buy their way into the lanes. The toll would vary; in times of heavy traffic, the cost would rise to discourage use and thus keep traffic flowing freely.
Potentially, that’s a useful idea. According to Ginger Gooden, a research engineer at the Texas Transportation Institute, allowing motorists to buy their way into under-used HOV lanes can speed travel, raise revenue and even decrease congestion in remaining general-purpose lanes. She cites studies of such conversions in Seattle and Minneapolis that have documented an improvement in traffic flow even in untolled lanes.
However, the Georgia DOT has more controversial ideas as well. On the Downtown Connector and a stretch of I-20 inside the Perimeter, it proposes to convert both an existing HOV lane and an existing general-purpose lane into toll-only HOT lanes.
If that proposal is approved, it would take an already overburdened highway and shrink its availability even further to the general public. Those lanes — infrastructure already bought and paid for by taxpayers — would be reserved for the exclusive use of those able to pay for that luxury.
According to DOT projections, someone using the high-priced toll lanes during rush hour in 2030 would be able make the 21-mile trip from Pleasant Hill Road to downtown in just 30 minutes. Not bad.
But for the rest of you, it would take 90 minutes.
According to Gooden, no other state has taken the step of converting existing general-purpose lanes to HOT lanes; in fact, she knows of no other states seriously considering such a step.
In his visit to Atlanta last week, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood also expressed surprise the idea was being proposed. He predicted that once people understand the proposal, public outrage would build pretty quickly.
That’s certainly been the pattern here in Georgia. A few years ago, when the DOT proposed converting Ga. 316 to a toll road, the political backlash forced the department to withdraw the idea. To calm the outrage, it also adopted a policy outlawing the conversion of existing lanes to privately financed toll lanes. That policy remains in effect, at least so far.
Overall, the state DOT is studying construction of a whole network of “managed lanes;” if approved, it would represent the department’s most significant transportation investment in metro Atlanta of the next 20 years.
In a presentation to the state Transportation Board last week, DOT planning director Todd Long estimated the cost of the network at $16.2 billion. Private investors would contribute almost $9 billion in return for a cut of the toll revenue, leaving taxpayers to pay the remaining $7 billion.
Given that Georgia is expected to have only $20 billion to spend statewide over the next 20 years, that $7 billion would represent the lion’s share of state spending in metro Atlanta. Spending it on a project that would speed travel for only a relative few makes no sense to me.